Just a few months in Belgrade were sufficient to confirm that her “high expectations” when it comes to Serbia had been fulfilled. This is how the story of the start of the term of new Israeli Ambassador Alona Fisher Kamm begins.
In this interview for CorD Magazine she talks about plans to encourage stronger economic cooperation between Israel and Serbia, as well as plans to present her country as an interesting tourist destination for travellers from Serbia. The two countries will also strengthen cooperation in the fight against terrorism, while Israel, as a country at the top of the world rankings of innovative economies, is ready to help strengthen the IT sector in Serbia, announces Fisher Kamm. According to her, Serbia can serve as an example to other countries with its adopted Law on Restitution, according to which properties will be returned to the heirs of Jews killed in the Holocaust, which she expects to be applied in practice.
Your Excellency, you arrived in Serbia only recently. How are your first impressions?
– I feel very much at home in this beautiful, vibrant city, although I’ve been living in Belgrade for only six months. Before coming here, my expectations were very high, since I had the privilege of speaking with all previous Israeli Ambassadors to Serbia and to Montenegro. Just like them, I immediately felt the generosity and great energy of your people. I’m very happy to be here. I applied for this post knowing that I’d be working in one of the most fascinating regions, with lots of potential for further strengthening our great relations.
You utilised the occasion of late January’s International Day of Holocaust Remembrance to call on all states to use education, but also laws, to prevent denials of this crime. In your opinion, what would the most efficient system for this look like?
– Holocaust denial, as well as Antisemitism, is not an exclusively Jewish concern. This should concern the societies where they prevail the most, since they are a syndrome of deep illness. They reveal the existence of intolerant and radical elements in society which, given the freedom to act, will raise their head and sabotage the democratic and liberal values of society itself. The WWII Holocaust was a unique and unprecedented phenomenon of extermination, based on racism, but its denial might have severe consequences over a society, since there are lessons to be learnt in order to avoid such crimes and atrocities in the future.
Due to the fact that recently we have been witnessing denial of the Holocaust, Antisemitism and hate crime in general in many countries, I believe we have to first fight against these phenomena collectively. The first step would be to adopt in international fora a sole working definition of Antisemitism that will be broad enough to cover a large variety of syndromes. Then every country should establish its own laws and, no less importantly, the right mechanism to enforce them. The most efficient system should combine legal, institutional and educational efforts, i.e. adoption and implementation of relevant laws, the creation of memorials and long-term teaching programmes that would encompass all levels of education.
A process that is of great importance to the Jewish community in Serbia is underway, relating to the resolution of ownership rights over property that belonged to Jews who were killed in the WWII Holocaust. Are you monitoring that process and do you agree with assessments that the Serbian government’s proposed legal solutions are satisfactory?
– We in Israel highly appreciate the Law on Restitution of Heirless Jewish Property, which was adopted by the Serbian government last year and rendered justice to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. In this respect, Serbia should serve as an example to all other countries. This is why it’s important for us all, Israel included, to guarantee its successful implementation and results. I would like to thank the Agency for Restitution, the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, the Government, as well as municipal officials and all parties involved, for their tireless efforts.
We in Israel highly appreciate the Law on Restitution of Heirless Jewish Property, which was adopted by the Serbian government last year and rendered justice to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust. In this respect, Serbia should serve as an example to all other countries
You have worked at your country’s embassies around the world – in Buenos Aires, Madrid, Paris. Now you have arrived in Serbia, which is located at the centre of a region that is increasingly written about as a place of political and inter-ethnic tensions and, according to some analyses, even possible conflicts. How do you see the Western Balkans?
– I come from a region that understands very well that, behind pure political interests, there are deep emotions of national identity, history, religious attachment and cultural factors that should be taken into account. The Western Balkans is a melting pot of fascinating variety of nations, cultures and religions, which unfortunately in the last decades have faced ethnically motivated turmoil and conflicts. Despite sporadic tensions that challenge overall stability, I strongly believe that this region has entered an era of development and progress, as it is decisively orientated towards the EU.
This region is also confronting the consequences of the global crisis, while Serbia cooperates with partners in the fight against terrorism. Can you tell us something about cooperation between the Serbian Interior Ministry and Israel in this field?
– In the past, unfortunately, Israel was left alone in its fight against terrorism. At that time, the dominant concept was that terrorism should be fought individually, by countries that suffer from. Globalisation has spread terrorism all over the world. People have learnt that no country is safe in an era where there are no borders and that extremist Islamic groups have waged war against the West and its values, and not against any particular country. International cooperation at bilateral and multilateral levels has become crucial in fighting terrorism. Preventing terrorism means not only detecting a potential attack, but countering the whole phenomenon, starting from fighting against incitement, closing economic sources that finance terrorism, dealing with recruitment etc. Both of our countries understand the danger of terrorism very well and are doing their utmost to fight one of the biggest threats of today, uniting its forces in this fight as any like-minded, friendly countries would do.
You’ve assessed political relations between Israel and Serbia as being at the highest level, while in your first media appearances you repeated that recognising the independence of Kosovo is not an option. Are there any diplomatic attempts to persuade the Government of Israel to change this stance?
– I would not be lying if I said that not everybody is satisfied with our position, but in this aspect nothing has changed. Israel stays firm in its position of non-recognition.
The level of overall investment over the years totals more than a billion euros and is mainly focused in the real estate sector, which made us the top investor in that very sector in Serbia. We do notice a trend of expansion in developing retail parks outside of Belgrade, which is a good sign for more balanced urban development
Media here in Serbia have reported for more than a decade about the great interest in doing business in Serbia among Israeli investors, with investments in construction and trade and services most often mentioned. Where do you see room to expand cooperation?
– The main Israeli investors came following the democratic changes of the year 2000. The level of overall investment over the years totals more than a billion euros and is mainly focused in the real estate sector, which made us the top investor in that very sector in Serbia. We do notice a trend of expansion in developing retail parks outside of Belgrade, which is a good sign for more balanced urban development.
In addition, we have a few investments in manufacturing, where I believe there is much more ground to explore together. Besides, there are Serbian companies representing Israeli companies in IT and agricultural technology, but also clothing and jewellery.
However, the gap between the trade balance and potential is huge, although trade figures for last year are very encouraging. Bilateral trade rose by 50 per cent and amounted to 66 million USD. The Embassy plans to exert more efforts into boosting trade and support activities, business matchmaking, sharing best practices and similar activities. For instance, this year we’ll have a national booth at the Novi Sad Agriculture Fair, where we’ll present Israeli agro-technology. Israeli agro-tech companies are also present and ready to invest here.
In the years ahead, we hope to see the level of bilateral trade growing, as well as investments in the IT sector, agriculture, renewable energy and clean tech and tourism.
It is our intention to complete the legal framework with agreements that would ease and stimulate economic relations between our countries. Last year we finalised the text of the Agreement on Avoidance of Double Taxation, which we hope will be implemented next year and benefit business from both countries.
The recently held World Economic Forum included the revealing of the Bloomberg Innovation Index, which ranks the most innovative economies in the world for 2017, and where Israel was ranked high, occupying 10th place. What would you say about how an economy can focus in this direction and to what extent is the education system important?
– Israel based its economy on the export of knowhow. Due to the very specific geopolitical surroundings and scarcity of natural resources, after the macroeconomic crisis we faced in the ‘90s, our government made a strategic decision to invest in R&D and make hi-tech the driving force behind our economy. It is a matter of national priority and, despite internal political change, our level of investment in R&D remains stable. The rest is history, with Israel being recognised as a “start-up nation” all over the globe.
There are a few pillars of the Israeli start-up ecosystem: academy, military, private sector, local municipalities and the government, via the Office of the Chief Scientist, which provides grants for start-ups. The education system is definitely important in this chain, especially universities that should be nurseries of creativity and innovation with their own hubs.
Could Israel and Serbia also cooperate in the field of new technologies?
– Our Embassy is very active in the start-up community in Serbia and well positioned. Every year we organise with partners the Start Tel Aviv competition for Serbian startups in seed phase, where the winner takes part in the DLD Festival of Innovation in Tel Aviv and gains the unique experience of working in one of the world’s start-up capitals. Moreover, we also work closely with all stakeholders on the Serbian startup scene by supporting a broad range of initiatives and events.
Besides this, through our Mashav Courses, which is the educational and training aid agency of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we share Israel’s best practices in entrepreneurship, innovation, and start-up accelerators, agriculture, the empowerment of women, clean tech and other. On an annual basis, we have around 50 different courses attended by at least one candidate from Serbia.
With regard to the newly adopted strategy of IT development and measures that the government will undertake to encourage education in IT, we will be happy to take an active part.
We have many plans for cooperation in the fields of culture, tourism, economy, education etc. Israeli tourism to Montenegro increased more than 100% in 2016 compared to 2015, and I believe this flow of tourism will contribute to better knowledge and understanding, as well as closer economic and cultural relations between the two countries
Belgrade and Tel Aviv were recently linked via direct charter flights, while your embassy was honoured late last year with recognition for cooperation with the Serbian tourism industry and for strengthening cultural and economic ties between the two countries. Do you believe that cooperation in this area can be enhanced further?
– There is an upward trend in Israeli tourists visiting Serbia. Things changed dramatically after the Israir and Arkia charter flights were launched in October last year. The number of Israeli tourists visiting Serbia, mainly Belgrade, increased by 70 per cent in 2016. These figures will continue to grow in line with the announced increased in the number of flights of both charter airlines. However, the number of Serbian tourists visiting Israel doesn’t follow this trend.
As Israeli Ambassador to Serbia, I would like to see these figures increase significantly, especially for the Serbs to discover Israeli cities and landscapes, as it’s only three hours away. We hope Serbian agencies will be able to create packages that would meet the purchasing power of the population. Furthermore, individual travellers have a range of accommodation possibilities to stay in 4-star hotels, which are dominant in the Israeli hotel offer. From Airbnb to Couchsurfing, various hostels, all can bridge the gap of an expensive hotel stay. Since Israel is a small country, within a week or a few days’ stay, one can travel from the green of the north, the Sea of Galilee and Haifa Bay, to the Dead Sea, Massada, Eilat and the Red Sea, in the very south, or to visit Jerusalem, with its religious sites.
With additional PR activities and adequate travel packages, both countries have much more to offer in terms of tourism exchange, which adds to general bilateral relations.
Apart from Serbia, you are also Israel’s ambassador to Montenegro. What are your priorities in relations with this neighbouring country?
– Israel has excellent relations with Montenegro, which are constantly on the rise. Being a non-resident ambassador, I am doing my best to be present there as much as I can. In all my visits to Montenegro I feel warm feelings and the sympathy of the people towards Israel, and I can assure you that these sentiments are mutual.
We have many plans for cooperation in the fields of culture, tourism, economy, education etc. Israeli tourism to Montenegro increased more than 100% in 2016 compared to 2015, and I believe this flow of tourism will contribute to better knowledge and understanding, as well as closer economic and cultural relations between the two countries.
During my recent visit to Montenegro I had several official meetings. We agreed that the level of bilateral trade is not satisfactory and there’s a gap to bridge. Cooperation in the areas of agriculture, energy and tourism is most promising.
Despite the fact that bilateral trade shows a growth trend, still the absolute amount of 2.74 million euros in 2016 is far below the actual potential.
In this regard, we plan to organise a business forum with the Chamber of Commerce of Montenegro, to exchange delegations, to bring Israeli speakers to conferences of interest and to relay all relevant information on investment potentials to Israeli businesses.